Thursday 21 September 2017

A lesser-known Lloyd Webber who had so much more to offer

George Hamilton

Andrew Lloyd Webber's name is back up in lights with a new show in London's West End. Stephen Ward is a musical take on the Profumo affair, a scandal that shocked the British establishment, brought down a government minister, and laid bare the underbelly of the Swinging Sixties.

Andrew's brother Julian is a world-renowned cellist but what's less well known is that their father was a distinguished performer and composer too -- 2014 marks the centenary of his birth.

William Southcombe Lloyd Webber was the son of a self-employed south London plumber, who was a bit of an organ buff. He'd take his little boy, Billy, with him when he'd go off to hear recitals around the city. It turned out that Billy was very talented and in no time at all he was playing the organ himself. Just into his teens, he was featuring in a BBC radio broadcast giving a recital in a church in London.

He played in cinemas, accompanying silent movies. He won scholarships. At the age of only 19, he had his fellowship and his first post as an organist and choirmaster.

By now, he was William Lloyd Webber. Enrolling at the Royal College of Music, he'd discovered he wasn't the only organ scholar called Webber. The other one was William too. Southcombe Webber was a bit of a mouthful, so Billy went with his other middle name. The Lloyd Webber dynasty had been born. It was as a teacher that Billy Webber made his living -- first at the RCM, then as director of the London College of Music -- but he was composing as well. He wrote in the Romantic style. Edward Elgar was one of his heroes. There are hints, too, of Rachmaninov and Franck.

But there's a sad side to the story. Though Lloyd Webber has a following now, little of what he composed was heard in his lifetime. His son Julian could only think of a couple of cello pieces that he'd known about before his father died.

'Aurora', arguably his greatest creation, an orchestral tone poem depicting the goddess of the dawn ("music that seethes with passion -- ebbing and flowing like a great love affair" Julian would write decades later in an appreciation in The Guardian), was written before the younger Lloyd Webber was born.

It had only ever been performed once. William Lloyd Webber was never convinced that his music had any value. He gave up writing, and only resumed late in life, composing in secret, listening to his music behind closed doors, often in tears, in a drink-fuelled haze. For all that he achieved as a teacher and a player, he could never quite banish the thought that, without acclaim for the music he wrote, his life had somehow been a failure.

Lacking the drive of his sons -- Andrew, the elder, in particular -- he may have been his own worst enemy in that regard, for listening now in this, his centenary year, you can't help feeling that William Lloyd Webber had much more to offer than he gave himself credit for.

GEORGE HAMILTON PRESENTS THE HAMILTON SCORES ON RTÉ LYRIC FM FROM 10AM EACH SATURDAY.

GHAMILTON@INDEPENDENT.IE

Irish Independent

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